Part Four of 4 Jobs I have had:
Medical Social Worker: Career ladder - 1st social work job
My favorite client was Henrietta, an older woman, small in stature with bright brown eyes that seemed to warm you when they rested on your face. She was raising her grandchildren, a young boy and teen-aged girl. Her granddaughter eventually gave birth to a baby girl, then disappeared leaving the infant with Henrietta. Soon we would learn this baby, whom everyone called Patty, had sickle cell anemia.
Henrietta and I would conduct our regular meetings at her kitchen table, usually early in the mornings in the roomy co-op apartment where she lived. The sizzling aroma of bacon and eggs floated through the house as we drank tea at the breakfast table shortly after sending her grandson off to school.
As soon as we finished our talk Henrietta and I would go quietly into Patty’s room, where I would wake her, and off we would go to the kitchen where Henrietta would set up her potty chair. Patty sat while we drank another cup of tea. Getting Patty up from her crib was something I always looked forward to. She seemed to know me, and I loved to hold her close and watch the sleep slowly drift away. Seeing that sleepy face shift into the curious, spirited 2 year old she had become was like a miracle each time it happened. Her face would infuse the room with light; her giggles were a magic potion. Patty was washed in love with every word leaving Henrietta’s throat. It was contagious; there was more than enough love to go around.
One morning about 26 months after we met I got a telephone call from Henrietta whose voice was broken by loud wails of raw pain. Finally I was able to understand. She was telling me Patty had died. I had not even known Patty was in an acute episode of her illness. Everything happened so suddenly. Henrietta begged me to help her understand this, to get information from the hospital, to talk to a doctor – anything, just do something! She trusted me, and she knew I was professionally connected to staff at the facility where Patty was treated.
Eventually I was able to get a copy of the autopsy report to review. By then Henrietta had been catapulted into a place of remoteness, jarred by deep pain that took her joy and seemed to hide it permanently away. She was withdrawn and deeply depressed. I studied this disease - this baby-snatcher and thief of childhood and future. I understood better its course, the way it crawled through the blood, changing red blood cells into crescent shaped cells which could accumulate and block the passage of oxygenated blood to the body’s system, much like beavers erecting dams in a stream. These crises, also called acute episodes, occurred when blood flow was severely restricted. Organs could be damaged, sometimes beyond repair, if they were deprived of oxygen too long. This disease seemed to prefer specific cultures of people, those of African, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern descent. It had no preference for age – the genes were inherited and present at birth. I tried to teach Henrietta everything I had learned.
Henrietta and I finally made sense of this painful moment in life when a future was stolen, when an empty bed left a family broken like glass, in pieces on the floor. I was glad to help her understand this life-changing event, to support her through the grieving process, and to gently care about her and her big heart the way she cared for others. Henrietta eventually reclaimed her life, smiled when she remembered Patty, and thanked her God for the days they had spent in the southern sunshine.
We stayed in touch for many years, reminiscing about days long ago when we were both much younger, when a little child was such a morning glory in our lives. Later I would move into different areas of social work, finally settling in medical social work where I would eventually become the supervisor of a team located in the very facility where Patty had died. Patty guided me into my career as surely as if she placed my feet on the path.
Patty would have celebrated her 32nd birthday this year. Sweet dreams, sweet one.